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In all discussion of eschatology (‘final things’) we need to recognise that –
1. The Bible does not tell us all that we might like to know and some Scriptures are hard to interpret. We need to be humble.
2. There are divergent views among Christians. We need to act graciously towards those who do not see things our way.
One in one dies – the perfect statistic! Unlike animals, we know that fact, so we always live in death’s shadow. Unbelievers, past and present, see no hope beyond the grave: ‘I was not, I became, I am not, I care not’ (Roman tombstone); ‘I believe that when I die, I rot’ (Bertrand Russell, 20th century philosopher). But Christians have a different perspective – the certain hope of resurrection and ‘rapture’ (I Thess. 4:13-15). It is clear that in the intervening period the dead are alive! Jesus told the Sadducees that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the God of the living, not the dead (i.e. those patriarchs are alive). Moses and Elijah were very much alive at the Transfiguration (Matt. 17:3).
Some words to understand
It is difficult for us to think outside time and space, and maybe we need to see the words below as pictures that seek to describe life in a dimension that is beyond our experience.
Sheol (Heb.) and Hades (Gk) are sometimes translated as ‘hell’ which has led to theological misunderstandings, especially in the creed where it says that ‘He descended into hell’. The words actually refer to the ‘place’ of departed spirits (another word, gehenna, is used for ‘hell’ itself) .This becomes important when we read Jesus’ statement that the gates of hades would not overcome the church (Matt. 16:18); by this he meant that the grave would never be able to trap Him or those who believed in Him. The same interpretation of hades (as the grave) needs to be given in Acts 2:27 (see NIV). There is no good ground for believing that Jesus visited hell between His death and resurrection (1 Peter 3:19 and 4:6, maybe the most puzzling texts in the NT, do not actually state this or necessitate that understanding).
Paradise means (literally) a walled garden. It would seem to be a synonym for heaven (2 Cor. 12:4), where the tree of life is situated (Rev. 2:7 cf Rev. 22:2, 14). However, some would argue that it is distinct from it and is the place of the blessed in Hades.
Tartarus, found only in 2 Peter 2:4 and usually translated ‘hell’, is in Greek mythology the place of punishment for departed spirits; we do not have to interpret it as their final destination.
There is no biblical foundation for a belief in purgatory (a place of purification until ready to for heaven) or an intermediate limbo (for the godly of the OT era, and for infants who die).
Sleep. Death is sometimes referred to as sleep (1 Cor. 15:52, 1 Thess. 4:15), but note that this is not soul-sleep but rather the sleep of the body (RIP – rest in peace).
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)
This is the only teaching of Jesus that casts light on what happens in ‘the intermediate state’. Both the rich man and the poor man are obviously in a conscious condition while in Hades and able to communicate, at least with Abraham. From this it would seem that Hades is indeed the place for departed spirits, but that at death they are segregated (‘a great chasm fixed’) according to their final destination, with no possibility of crossing over either way from the place of torment to ‘Abraham’s side’ (= Paradise?). The Bible does not state that this story is a parable, but we should be careful about assuming, therefore, that it is a literal description of the immediate after-life, or base a doctrine on it. A possible interpretation of 2 Peter 2:9, based on an exact reading of the Greek text, is that the ungodly are being punished now while being kept for later judgment.
Heaven and hell – now and then
The simplistic and common perception is that Christians go to heaven when they die. But obviously that is not heaven as it will be. Jesus has ‘gone to prepare a place for us’ (i.e. it is not ready yet) and that there will one day be ‘a new heaven and a new earth’. So although God is in heaven now, the future heaven will be significantly different; in particular, everyone will then have a resurrection body. It is also the case that hell has not yet been finished, so people do not ‘go to hell’ when they die (we can infer from Matt. 25:41 that the wicked are only sent into eternal fire at the final judgment). Death and Hades will be thrown into the lake of fire at the judgment (Rev. 20:14).
Some things can be stated with biblical certainty, especially the fact that believers go into the conscious presence of Christ the moment their body dies, because the spirit does not die; note Ecclesiastes 12:7 – ‘… the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.’ As Stephen died he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit’.
Paul knew he would ‘be with Christ, which is far better’ than remaining on earth (Phil. 1:23); that he ‘would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord’ (2 Cor. 5:8).
It would also seem that those who have died in Christ are witnesses of our ‘race on earth’ (Heb 12:1) and are engaged in prayer and worship (Rev. 6:10, 7:9-10).
Maybe the clearest indication about what happens to believers when they die is Jesus’ promise to the thief on the cross: ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in Paradise’ (Luke 23:43).
A practical conclusion
Jesus has destroyed the power of death, and has freed us from being slaves to the fear of death (Heb. 2:14-15). As Christians we should have the same attitude as Paul: ‘…to die is gain’. It is also worth rejoicing in God’s attitude! – ‘Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints’ (Ps. 116:15) and ‘blessed are the dead who die in the Lord’ (Rev. 14:13).
‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?’